Sunday, September 23, 2012

Melissa Ichiuji’s Obama Sculpture Censored?

DMV area artist Melissa Ichiuji currently has an exhibition of her work at Galerie Lareuse in Georgetown, and considering what Lareuse routinely exhibits, it is now clear to the most casual observer that this show is easily the most interesting and so far most controversial show ever staged there.

What's the fuss about?

The exhibition, titled "Fair Game," showcases Ichiuji's mastery of the soft sculptures that she's so well-known for, but this time focused on the political icons of the current American political scene. For example, some sculptures are mounted as hunting trophies in a chilling and intelligent commentary on the state of our political discourse.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney is shown, with darkened, closed dead eyes, his head blown apart a-la-JFK, and exposing a variety of metal found objects and gadgets. It is a disturbing image to say the least, but that was not the artwork apparently censored for the show.

Ichiuji targets many other icons of the Republican party — Newt Gingrich has a thing for female underwear, Ron Paul is depicted as a clown, Sarah Palin has antlers. None of those were censored either, although apparently the Palin sculpture may end up in the Todd and Sarah Palin Collection.

The offending piece (which according to the artist's website has been censored) is a portrait of President Obama. Like the Romney sculpture, Obama originally appeared to have a brutal JFK-like wound on his head; at least as initially designed by Ichiuji, not the sanitized version currently on exhibition at Lareuse. According to the CP, "curator Kreg Kelley denies the censorship charge; he says Lareuse asked her to change the piece because it wasn't appropriate for Georgetown." 

Uh? "Appropriate for Georgetown?" More on that later...

According to the CP, Ichiuji says that
"the gallery's owner, Jean-Michel "Meech" Lareuse, asked her to change it before she could exhibit it. She sent invitations to the show, "Fair Game," before it opened on Sept. 15, using an image of the original artwork. She posted the same image to her website. Not long afterward, both the gallery and Ichiuji began getting irate emails—some of them quite threatening. People thought it was "some kind of call to action to hurt the president, which wasn't the intent at all," she says. "It's about pressure, it's about anxiety, and just sort of the political climate overseas." But Lareuse wasn't having it, says Ichiuji. "He said 'We cannot show that piece unless you change it.'" So she did. Instead of a bloody wound, the piece now depicts doves "exploding out" of the president's head"
In her statement about this show, Ichiuji explains that
My current body of work is a series of portrait busts depicting political figures of 2012. I am attempting to challenge the tradition of portraiture that elevates its subject and affirms his or her importance, nobility and power. I wondered what a portrait based on current media coverage might look like. What might these people be remembered for if a snapshot was taken now? What are they thinking? What are their fears? Would they recognize themselves? The title FAIR GAME refers to two things. The position a public personality knowingly and willingly accepts as part of their job and the brutality with which opponents and the media will hunt down, embellish and exploit a weakness or transgression and display it like a trophy.
Here's the two pieces, side by side, with the original version of the Obama bust:

Mitt Romney, Fabric, Wire, Found Objects, Zippers 30 x 30 inches by Melissa IchiujiObama, Fair Game by Melissa Ichiuji
 As it should also be obvious to that same casual observer that I referenced in the first paragraph, both these pieces have something somewhat brutal in common and following the artist's words about "the brutality with which opponents and the media will hunt down," clearly lead to the same conclusions. Both these men have been allegorically hunted, shot and mounted as trophies. 

Romney's head would hang in a boardroom at MSNBC, or The New York Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, NPR and most places referenced in Ann Coulter's best-seller Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right. The President's trophy would hang at Fox News and dozens of syndicated radio stations around the nation and other places referenced in Al Franken's ad hominen best-seller Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

In case you disagree with me, the gallery's press release states that:
The show features the severed heads of ten political personalities who have captured media attention for their popularity, alleged transgressions, or general evilness. The heads are mounted on wood panels in the manner of taxidermy trophy heads emphasizing the brutality of media spin and public scrutiny. 
So we got it... right?

So now comes my question: Why is a head wound to Romney's head appropriate for Georgetown? What the heck does that mean anyway? Does that mean that it is OK to show the Republican candidate as having been hunted, shot, taxidermied and hung as a trophy, but not the Democratic candidate?

It gets worse, according to the artist, all of the "irate" and "threatening" emails received by the gallery and by the artist were about the Obama sculpture. Apparently the vast right wing conspiracy hasn't heard about this, and only the even vaster left wing nuthouse has been mobilized to threaten an artist who is well within her right to use her formidable artistic skills to offer political commentary to both sides of the political spectrum.

Because this alleged censorship was between a gallery and an artist, some of the issues get murky, after all, "he who owns the walls" has powerful rights to hang or not hang something in the art world. So I can understand how a "revised" Obama sculpture ends up in the show; that is between Ichiuji and Lareuse. I don't like it, but I understand the process.

But it is the authors of the "irate" and "threatening" emails who deserve a mandatory course on First Amendment Rights, and it is them who really piss me off to no end.

Artists have always, and will hopefully always be able to offer their artistic perspectives on our political leaders. Some of it is despicable (Remember the film Death of a President? a fantasy about the killing of George W. Bush that won the International Critics’ Prize at the Toronto Film Festival?), but - and this is an important but - in view of today's contemporary mob barbarism sweeping many Islamic nations, it is more important than ever to respect and defend our joint first amendment rights, no matter how far away from our own private political stance those views may be.

We may disagree with the way in which Ichiuji decided to portray your political candidate, while liking the way she portrayed the "other guy", but we should all agree that we stand together in defending her right to create art about them in any manner, way or form that she chooses.

Chalk one up for the mob.